Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Keep My Department From Becoming Toxic?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m having a social problem at work. I’m a female student in a physics PhD program. This means that I’m in kind of a weird spot where: (1) my coworkers are also kind of supposed to be my friends, and (2) the gender ratio is really, *really* bad (<15%).

When I first came in, I repeatedly made it very clear that I didn’t want to get involved with anyone in my department, and managed to get set up with a solid group of friends with a decent male/female mix (girlfriends, spouses, etc.). The people in my department seem decent. The problem is with our incoming class. There is a student in the incoming cohort who talks about how #metoo is overrated (Louie C.K. had his career unfairly cut short and is valiantly rebuilding it) and watches comedians who do blackface routines. He’s the only student who did his undergrad here, so he has a lot more confidence than most of the other new students. The incoming class is mostly international students, with a few domestic students scattered in. I hope (?) that a lot of the international students just don’t have the cultural context to understand what they’re laughing along with, but I’m not sure.  Two of the domestic students were pretty quiet. I’m hoping that meant ‘uncomfortable’.

I’m stuck in this program for the next four years. I’d rather not have all of the professional contacts that I can make be tainted by these attitudes. It’s not the kind of culture that I want to take root, and I feel like if I’m going to do anything to limit it, I need to do it now while everyone in that year is still figuring things out and kind of wrong-footed. I’m one of only four girls in an active social group of around thirty people, which puts me in a weaker position. There are zero black people in the whole department.

What are the best ways for me to stop him from influencing overall department culture? I have strong social ties with older students I can pull on, but I don’t want to look like the bitchy overly PC woman bullying the new kid to the rest of his incoming class. I can’t be heavy-handed about this, but it’s also really not OK. What’s the smartest way to do this?

Don’t Want To Be The Funwrecker

DEAR DON’T WANT TO BE THE FUNWRECKER: Y’know that phrase “one bad apple spoils the bunch?” A lot of people get the meaning wrong; they tend to assume that it means the presence of said bad apple means that everyone THINKS the rest is spoiled; these perfectly good apples are unjustly associated with the one bad one. In reality, it’s meant quite literally: the presence of said rotten or moldy apple causes the rest to go bad. In produce, overripe fruit produces excess ethylene gas, causing the rest of the fruit to ripen early and begin to spoil. The mold on produce will cause the rest of the produce to go moldy as well as the spores spread and gain traction on the rest.

And one asshole in the class can give the impression that toxic, s

tty behavior and attitudes are acceptable.

Which is why the cure is to cut that s

t off at the knees as soon as you possibly can, before it has a chance to be normalized.

So the first thing that needs to happen is that you’re going to need to get over your fear of making a scene or confronting this kid. This can often be difficult; not only are women socialized to go along to get along, but would-be edgelords thrive by making confrontation uncomfortable. They want the people who’re upset by their s

ttiness to be unwilling to push things. They may play the “but my free speech!!!111!” card where they insist that criticizing them or pushing back is censorship. They may try to cast you as the funwrecking SJW who just can’t handle edgy humor and frame themselves as the iconoclast rebels pushing against a staid establishment. They’ll try to play to the crowd  by insisting that nobody else — especially the students who are uncomfortable but not saying anything (and yes, those two students who were being quiet were almost certainly uncomfortable) — was bothered by this and so it’s really just YOU who has the problem.

And arguing with them about the points — in this case, why blackface is unacceptable and racist, why #metoo came about and what it’s actually changed — won’t work. Not only will they not listen, but they’ll often shift goalposts, twist meanings and otherwise try to derail the conversation with gish-galloping arguments and bad faith sea-lioning. You know: all the tactics that people think make Ben Shapiro seem smarter and a better debater than he actually is.

The key with all of that is that it requires two things: for you to engage with them in good faith and for you to miss that they won’t engage with you that way. It’s a curious game; the only way to win is not to play.

So don’t.

Not by their rules.

Instead, you want to use the advantages you have. To start with: he’s a first year in the program. That puts him at the lowest rung on the ladder. The fact that he did his undergrad at the same school honestly doesn’t carry much in the way of authority or credit, certainly not any that should cow you into silence or submission. You on the other hand, have both seniority and the stronger ties with the folks who are already there. That, in effect, gives you institutional authority that he doesn’t have. So wield it. When he starts going on about how #metoo ruined things (it didn’t) or how unfair it is that Louis CK is facing consequences for sexually harassing women, then wield that power with a simple phrase: “We don’t do that here”.

This is both your sword and shield. It keeps him from arguing about how “it’s all in good fun” or “he’s just asking questions” or “nobody means anything by it” because the answer is “that may be the case, but we don’t do that here.” Because now you’re not trying to debate the “facts”, nor are you coming at this from a place of equals (or appearing to seek his approval or permission); you’re coming at this as The Voice of the Institution. By framing the conversation as “we don’t do that here”, it’s not about society and social justice run amok, it’s about the custom and culture of the institution and the community. In a very real way, you are reminding him that he is new and you are not; you have the authority by virtue of seniority.

And if you can use those social ties to the other senior program members to get them to back your play and agree: “We don’t do that here”? Then you’ve effectively created a barrier that he can’t get around. It’s no longer about morality or oversensitivity or even logic; it’s simply the fact that there are rules and boundaries to the program and as a newcomer, he has no standing to challenge them.

Another effective tactic is to take away the refuge in audacity. Rather than argue that blackface is unacceptable, you want to put him in the position of having to acknowledge the racism inherent in the jokes. It’s one thing to try to position oneself as the Iconoclast, the person who Isn’t Afraid To Walk The Line and Defender of Free Speech; it’s another entirely to have to take ownership of the fact that blackface is f

king racist. So whenever he brings up blackface — or shows videos in class — then simply ask: “Why is this funny? Explain it to me. What’s the joke here?” Don’t allow him to weasel his way out of it. Ask: “But why is that funny?” “What makes this funny? Explain the joke to me”. If he tries to claim that you don’t get humor or that you just don’t understand, make it even more uncomfortable for him. “But you clearly think it’s funny, so you clearly get the joke. So explain to me why wearing blackface is funny”. Keep it strictly to WHY he thinks the joke is funny; bringing up racism yourself is just going to give an opening for him to make grand pronunciations about SJWs and similar horse s

t. But by forcing him to explain it, you’re putting him into the position of either admitting he’s racist or that he’s ok with racist humor. And even to hard-core bigots, openly admitting to bigotry is still socially frowned upon and deeply uncomfortable.

And here’s the thing: by openly voicing your disapproval, even without saying “you’re wrong” or “this is bad”, you’re taking away his other advantage: bystander inertia and conflict aversion. A lot of folks — especially when they’re young — don’t like causing a scene. Many of us had it drilled into our heads that the one who points out the drama is somehow worse than the person who’s causing it. Bullies and edgelords rely on this. They need people to stay quiet, so that they can point around and say “well nobody ELSE is complaining”. By speaking up, you create the first crack in that wall of silence, that empowers others to feel like they can voice their discomfort too. And by speaking up, not just as a woman or as a person who’s offended by casual racism and misogyny but as A Voice of Authority, you lend weight and cover for others to speak up too.

All it takes for s

tty attitudes like this to take root is for good folks to say nothing. Edgelords thrive on the silent acquiescence of others and whither in the face of social disapproval. So take away that silence and leverage your social clout against him. You may not change his mind, but that’s not the goal. The goal is simply to keep his bulls

t from poisoning the entire program. By creating an environment that’s inhospitable to his attitude, you keep it from taking root in the first place.

Good luck.

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